Russia’s Position Towards the Yemen War


Sun, 07-11-2021 09:32 PM, Aden

Andrew Korybko (Moscow) 

Russia’s return to West Asia following the onset of its anti-terrorist intervention in Syria over half a decade ago has seen the Eurasian Power take a much greater interest in the region, including the Yemeni War. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Moscow wields important influence when it comes to the body’s efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict. Its position towards the war is balanced and pragmatic, with the Kremlin not openly taking either of the two primary parties’ side. Russia even sometimes equally criticizes both of them. In light of recent developments related to the Battle for Marib, it’s worthwhile analyzing Russia’s stance a bit more in detail. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, by virtue of his position, authoritatively articulates his country’s policy to the world. He last elaborated on this at length with respect to Yemen during a press conference with his counterpart from that country in May. What follows are some key quotes about Russia’s stance that he shared at the time, after which they’ll be concisely analyzed before proceeding to other relevant developments that shed further light on the Kremlin’s position:

“Our position is unequivocal: the Yemenis must agree among themselves through comprehensive dialogue, while external players must facilitate conditions that will allow them to reach a compromise solution at their inclusive talks. We also believe that the way to enduring peace and stability lies through the dialogue of all leading national political forces. We laid particular emphasis on this today. We do not see any alternative to intra-Yemeni talks with mutual consideration for each other’s interests and concerns.

Russia continues to advocate the full lifting of the sea, ground and air blockade of Yemen and cancellation of all restrictions on the supplies of food, medications and other basic necessities to all districts in the country without exception. We urge all parties to the conflict to strictly observe the provisions of international humanitarian law and renounce combat operations that lead to the destruction of the civilian infrastructure and civilian victims.

We support the proposals made some time ago by the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Yemen on the functioning of the airport in Sana’a, the operation of the port in Hodeidah and regular salary payments to government employees. No compromise has been reached on these issues so far. We urged the parties involved to settle the conflict over the oil storage vessel Safer that is moored near Hodeidah through cooperation between the Ansar Allah Houthi movement and the authorized UN agencies.”

Simply put, Russia supports intra-Yemeni talks between its internationally recognized government and the Houthis aimed at reaching a political compromise to peacefully end the war. It’s also adamantly against the ongoing blockade against the country, which it regards as worsening the humanitarian crisis in the Northern part of the country that’s largely under Houthi control. This is a principled position to hold, but Russia doesn’t have any means to influence the warring parties to that end. 

Lavrov then implied a few weeks later in early June while participating in the Primakov Readings forum that the West is partially responsible for Yemen’s many challenges. According to him, “We are also free of the messianic fervor, with which our Western colleagues are trying to spread their value-based democratic agenda across the world. It has long been clear to us that imposing a development model from the outside will not lead to anything good. Look at the Middle East, North Africa, Libya, Yemen or Afghanistan.” 

His next high-profile comments on the conflict came in late September. In his address to the United Nations, Lavrov said that “In Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen and in other hotbeds, all external actors must show an understanding of the cultural and civilizational specifics of society, reject politicization of humanitarian aid, and assist in the establishment of government bodies with broad representation of all major ethnic, religious and political forces of the relevant countries.”

He added more clarity to Russia’s position during his press conference shortly afterwards. The top Russian diplomat said that “The conflict in Yemen is a case in point in terms of exposing the interests of Arab countries and Iran. There is a need to reach agreements.” This implies that Russia acknowledges that a solution to that conflict must likely involve a compromise between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which support the Houthis and Yemen’s internationally recognized government respectively. 

Lavrov elaborated more on Yemen in response to a targeted question about it. He said that “I will not go into any details right now, but Yemen is indeed a country with the world’s largest humanitarian disaster, which was pointed out long ago, when the conflict had only just started and was in the hot phase. We are involved through our Embassy. Our ambassador to Yemen is currently working from Riyadh, where a group of ambassadors are acting together to support the process and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Yemen. I hope that everyone will gradually come to see the futility of trying to put off the necessary agreements.”

He's obviously not the only Russian official dealing with this conflict, which segues the analysis into discussing the relevant efforts of his colleagues. Special Russian Presidential Envoy for the Middle East and African Countries Mikhail Bogdanov, who’s also his country’s Deputy Foreign Minister, plays a major role in this respect. His last reported efforts were in early September when he met with the Director of the European Department of Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry and the Saudi Ambassador to Russia. 

A month prior, he held a bilateral meeting with the Saudi Ambassador upon the latter’s request, during which time they discussed Yemen, among other topics of mutual interest. Bogdanov also met with the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister in late October to discuss Yemen and other issues. This shows that Russia’s approach to Yemen is indeed very balanced since its top Mideast envoy meets with representatives from the two external parties most closely connected to its conflict. 

First Deputy Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN Dmitry Polyanskiy has also gotten involved with the issue as well. His words are important due to his influential position on the global stage. This high-level diplomat last commented on the conflict in mid-October while speaking at a session of the Security Council. Here are some of his pertinent remarks as reported by Russian international media outlet TASS:

“We keep track of the acute military and political crisis in Yemen. We are particularly concerned by the situation at the border of Marib and Shabwa provinces, where deadly clashes between Houthis and formations that are loyal to the president have resumed recently.

It is our intention to continue encouraging the Yemeni authorities and the leadership of the Houthi movement Ansar Allah to demonstrate a constructive approach and be ready for compromise. We advocate for launching inter-Yemeni talks under the UN auspices to address the issue of the future.

The distressing statistics provided by OCHA is rather self-explanatory. We reiterate the need to lift restrictions on the deliveries of food, medicines, and other basic items to all districts of Yemen.

We are very concerned by the unstopping attacks on civilian facilities, including on the territory of Saudi Arabia. We call on the conflicting sides to strictly adhere to the provisions of the international humanitarian law, promptly and fully reject combat operations that lead to the destruction of the non-military infrastructure and civilian casualties.”

His comments reaffirm Russia’s interest in the conflict as well as its existing policy as was earlier explained. This is especially the case when it comes to his country’s support for intra-Yemeni talks, an end to the blockade, and the urgent need to stop attacking civilian facilities. Once again, despite being a principled policy, Russia lacks the means to influence either of the warring sides to these ends. Its pragmatic position can therefore be regarded as mostly symbolic. 

The context in which Polyanskiy made his remarks was explained by the press release by the Russian Foreign Ministry that preceded them a few days earlier. Because of its importance in officially clarifying that country’s position towards recent developments, it’ll be republished in full below:

“Moscow is very concerned about the escalation of tensions in and around the Republic of Yemen.

According to incoming reports, on October 9 of this year, the Ansar Allah Houthi movement launched a drone attack on the King Abdullah Airport in the Saudi city of Jizan. The attack injured 10 civilians and did substantial material damage. We consider attacks on civilian facilities unacceptable.

In turn, the Saudi coalition forces continue to bomb targets on Houthi-controlled territories. We urge all Yemeni parties to refrain from any action that can increase civilian casualties in this protracted conflict, or destroy the basic infrastructure thereby worsening the already critical humanitarian situation.

We regret to say that the further degradation of the situation in Yemen is creating conditions that can breed terrorist group activity. This was again illustrated by an October 10 attack in Aden on the convoy of local Governor Ahmed Lamlas and Agriculture Minister of Yemen Salem al-Suqatri. It killed six people and wounded seven, both from their entourage and others. We resolutely denounce this attack and express condolences to the families and friends of the dead.

We confirm our position of principle on the need for the parties to the Yemeni conflict to renounce armed confrontation as soon as possible and to seek resolution through an inclusive negotiating process under UN aegis. Successfully initiating this process will directly promote the prospects for reducing confrontation and ensuring lasting stabilisation. We welcome the efforts of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg to increase mediation in searching for political solutions, taking into account the interests of all political, religious and regional forces in Yemen.

We intend to continue doing all we can to develop a comprehensive intra-Yemeni dialogue. The goal is to ensure an all-round and lasting solution to the numerous problems that Yemen is facing today and that produce a strong impact on its neighbors.”

To sum it up, Russia condemned each sides’ attacks against civilians. It also warned that terrorists might seek to exploit the country’s continued instability, which adds a sense of urgency to the stalled efforts to promote a political solution. Russia sincerely hopes that intra-Yemeni talks will be held soon. 

Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs Leonid Slutsky very sharply criticized the Houthis around that time. According to TASS, he said that “We firmly condemn the Houthi movement’s attacks against Saudi Arabia. They flagrantly violate the international law and pose a threat not only to the country’s security but also to the stability of the entire region”, adding that they “do not contribute to the peace process settlement in Yemen led by the UN.” He also said that “We support the Arabian coalition’s endeavors to protect civilians and infrastructure from hostile attacks.” 

To summarize everything, Russia’s top priorities are to stop the military phase of the conflict (which it believes is providing a breeding ground for terrorists) through its support of intra-Yemeni talks. It also wants both sides to stop targeting civilian facilities and supports an immediate lifting of the coalition’s blockade against the country. Extrapolating from this, Moscow most likely envisions a vague power-sharing agreement between the Houthis and Yemen’s internationally recognized government. 

Be that as it may, such a position seems to be politically unrealistic at the moment since the conflict has only intensified over the past few months. Peace talks seem to be out of the question until the Battle of Marib is concluded. The Houthis’ possible victory would place them in a dominant political position to dictate some power-sharing terms in the Northern region of Yemen that’s mostly under their control, but only if they agree to halt their expansion and stop talking about taking over the whole country. 

A Coalition victory, however, might embolden these forces to continue pushing back against the Houthis. They might of course try to push their own power-sharing terms onto the group, but only if the decision is made to stop trying to outright eliminate them. It remains to be seen since the Coalition considers their opponents to be foreign-backed terrorists who pose a dire threat to the entire region. This position will have to change in order for Russia’s envisioned intra-Yemeni talks to ever occur. 

All in all, it’s expected that Russia will try to involve itself in these potential political processes by offering the use of its diplomatic services to that end. Nevertheless, the Kremlin doesn’t really have any influence over either of the warring parties, which means that its efforts will likely remain almost exclusively symbolic unlike the US’. Even so, it might be a good idea for both sides to still consider any relevant offers since Russia is a truly neutral player whose balanced stance proves that it can be trusted. 

Andrew Korybko 

Moscow-based American political analyst

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks to Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi during their meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, April 2, 2013. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service).

South YemenPeace ProcessPutinHadiArab CoalitionEuropean UnionSaudi ArabiaChinaUSAAdenMaribAfghanistanMoscowLibya